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Sunday 28 May 2023

St John's Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2.1-22; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12.1-13; John 20.19-23

If, in the Christian calendar, the feast day of Pentecost celebrates the first outpouring out of the divine Spirit on the infant church, then the Scripture readings set for today record not one Pentecostal event, but two.  The more familiar of these is created by St Luke in the book of Acts, the one associated with dramatic signs like the sound of a tempest and tongues of fire. Here the outpouring out of the Spirit is closely associated with the Jewish festival of Shavoat, or ‘Weeks’, which celebrates both the annual harvest of grain and the giving of the law to Moses at Mt Sinai. It occurs 50 days after Passover: a number which, in Jewish numerology, signifies the time of Jubilee when alienated land is returned to its original owners, debts are forgiven, and slaves regain their freedom.  It is also the time when Israel finds its true identity as a nation and seeks, in earnest, to live by the law of God.  

St Luke redeploys these Jewish meanings for Christian purposes. There are 120 disciples of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem for the festival, 10 for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. When the spirit is poured out, they will become the seed of new Israel, a new people of God. A new law is also given, the law of Jesus, whose spirit will break the strong social and political bonds of slaves, of women, and of younglings. No longer will it just be venerable old men like Moses who receive divine law and proclaim it with authority; from now on it will be everyone, even slaves and women and younglings. All who listen to the spirit and take her breath into their lungs will now become prophets whose larynxes and lips will form divine words, words of Jubilee, words of freedom, in a thousand different tongues. They will go out from that place and bear witness to this freedom in Jerusalem, and in Samaria, and eventually the whole known world.  All very dramatic. All very apocalyptic. All very beautiful. The stuff of movies and concerts and rock operas.

But there is another ‘Pentecost’ in our readings, the Pentecost recorded by St John in his gospel. Here the outpouring of divine spirit is reserved not for a crowd of 120 confidently awaiting the sure fulfillment of divine promise on the Feast of Shavoat, but for a motley remnant of scared and bewildered disciples huddled together in a locked room for fear of being discovered by their enemies. For, in John’s timeline, Jesus had been crucified only three days before, and most of his disciples have fled the city for fear of being rounded up and executed in a similar manner. Those who remained were therefore far fewer in number and, notwithstanding the report of Mary Magdalen that she had seen and spoken to an apparently resurrected Jesus, they were terrified.  For they dared not believe Mary. Her story seemed too fantastical. ('Perhaps it is the grief speaking?') Still, it is right there, in the midst of their terror and their doubt, that Jesus turns up. Right there. Through the locked door. Through their fear-locked hearts. Through their sceptical minds. Right there. And he says two things to them straight up. Showing them the wounds of his crucifixion, Jesus says ‘Peace be with you’. Twice. Then, as he breathes upon them, he says ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you: receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ Let’s spend some time meditating on these words.

At one level, ‘Peace be with you’ is little more than a common greeting. It’s how every Jew would have greeted every other Jew at the market or in the field. That greeting is preserved in the Arabic phrase ‘A-salam alaykum’ used by Muslims and Palestinian Christians even today: ‘Peace be with you’. The traditional response was, and remains, ‘wa-alaykum salam’: ‘And also with you’. We use the formulary ourselves as we approach the eucharist in Christian worship. Which should indicate that the greeting is far more than a social nicety, a way of saying ‘hello’. It embeds and bears witness to the way of the divine spirit in the world. The spirit who, according to the Psalmist, both creates and renews all living things (Ps 104.30). The spirit who, according to St Paul, binds the community of Christ—with all of its diverse ministries and modes of service—together as one organism, one body (1 Cor 12.4, 12).  The spirit who creates and renews and binds all living creatures together in a cosmic body characterised by shalom, salam, peace with justice. The body of Jesus present in our story, a body risen and yet still bearing the marks of crucifixion, functions as an arch-symbol of this social and cosmic body in which we all participate by the spirit. On the one hand, the body is bruised and broken, marked by the grievous wounds we inflict upon each other and upon the earth. On the other hand, the body is resilient. It can heal, it can rise, it can overcome such sins through the power of the spirit who knits every sinew together in peace.

For peace, in both Jewish and Islamic teaching, cannot be reduced to something like a nice inner feeling of calm or equanimity, as in many popular forms of mindfulness. No. Peace is about the recognition that all life, whether human or animal, plant or mineral, thrives and renews itself only insofar as we recognise our need of each other, our interdependence in a divinely charged cosmos knit together by the spirit. 

In the human community, this means attending to the many injustices we visit upon one another in our quests for power, ownership and control. It means righting the wrongs, healing the wounds, and redressing the social and economic imbalances, so that we might be reconciled. In the ecological community, it means human beings attending to, and taking responsibility for, the devastation we have wrought upon our leafed, furred, scaled and beaked kin, and upon the land itself.  It means calling a halt to practices that maim our environment and committing, instead, to practises of repair, healing and renewal.  

For peace is essentially about tending the relationships we are given in creation, the matrix of care and reciprocity that the spirit has woven into our DNA. It is about justice, equality, and the integrity of creation.  It is about letting go of fear and exploitation and living, instead, as though we all mattered. All of us. Even black people. Even Muslims. Even Aboriginal people. Even gay, lesbian, trans and differently gendered people. Even koalas, even frogs, even deserts and rivers and rainforests. All of us. All our kin. Imagine that. 

So. When the risen Jesus greets his terrified disciples in this story from John’s gospel, when he places his peace upon them not once, but twice, this is the meaning that is carried and implied in that word ‘peace’. All of what I just said. Every bit.  Nothing less.

Which leads us to what Jesus does next in John’s story, which is the explicitly ‘pentecostal’ bit.  Let’s recap. Having greeted them with peace and shown them the wounds of his crucified body, the risen Jesus says: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ He then breathes upon them and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ Here we have three extraordinary examples of what JL Austin calls ‘performativity’. Performativity is when something you say also does something, changes something, makes something happen in the real world. Like when a marriage celebrant says, towards the end of the ceremony ‘You are now married’. By saying that phrase, the marriage is brought into being. It is made real.  So it is with these three saying of Jesus here in the locked room. 

When Jesus says, first, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ he changes the identity and purpose of the people in the room.  They are no longer the scared remnant of failed religious movement, hiding away from their enemies. They are a community with a mission: to leave that room, that place of fear, and imitate in their thinking and behaviour all that Jesus has done in their midst. Just as Jesus had imitated what he saw his Father doing in the world. Just so. 

When Jesus then breathes upon them and says, second, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ he changes their relationship with the divine power that is at the heart of every living creature. Rather than being alone and cut off from that power, hidden away in a locked room our of a fear that they will lose their lives, the disciples are changed into a people who breathe in that power, and are therefore reconnected with the life and animation they are given in creation: a liveliness, a spirit, and a divine kinship network that can never be extinguished. A few chapters earlier, afterall, Jesus had said ‘The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’ (16.32, 33). So here—with the breathing in of the spirit, and in the wake of the extraordinary resurgence of life in the crucified Jesus—the disciples find their power to reconnect with the divine as Jesus had done. And they are emboldened to persevere with their mission despite the inevitable persecution that will come their way.

Finally, when Jesus says ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ the disciples are changed from a marginal community with no power whatsoever into a marginal community with the power both to forgive and not to forgive. Marginal still, mind. But marginal with an important new power. Remember that, in the most dominant forms of Jewish theology at the time, it was only God who could forgive; and only through the mediation and sacrificial system of the temple priesthood.  In time, and in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple, that theology would change in Judaism. But, for now, the idea that unordained people (as each of these disciples undoubtedly were) could be granted the power to forgive sins, was rather radical. It is still just a bit too radical for some. Even in a Christian context.  

But think about it for a moment.  There is a sense in which the power to forgive, or not, is the only power of the Christian community. The only legitimate power, you might say, the only power given it by the Jesus of John’s gospel. It is endlessly interesting to me that Jesus did not say ‘Here, receive the power to annex the land of evildoers’, or ‘Receive the power to deprive evil doers of their liberty’. If Jesus had given the church such powers, which he didn’t, I suspect we would have used them for evil purposes. We would have used them to empower ourselves and our mates and exclude those we don’t like, for whatever reason. Reasons of ethnicity, social caste, economic status or gender, for example.  (Of course, the history of the Christian church shows, quite starkly, that the Christian community very often takes such powers to itself, regardless of what Jesus might have said about it). 

Still, the Jesus of St John’s gospel grants us only the power to forgive or not to forgive. Which I take to include a responsibility to discern when someone has truly repented of wrongdoing or not. So, let’s be done, I beg all of you, with every doctrine of forgiveness that pretends to be ‘unconditional’. Love can be unconditional, but forgiveness cannot. You must truly repent and amend your behaviour if you want to be forgiven and reconciled to the one you have wronged, whether that be God, the earth, or other people.  If you seek to be forgiven without repenting and changing your behaviour, the one you have wronged has a right, but also a responsibility according to these words of Jesus, to ‘retain’ your sins rather than to erase them from the ledger. For, if forgiveness is granted in a pre-emptive manner, abuse and bad behaviour is both rewarded and encouraged.  Which is incredibly discouraging news for those of us who are the victims of such abuse. And it does not make for peace as we defined it just a moment ago.  Peace is what you get when victims are heard, recognised, and properly supported on a journey of healing. Peace is what you get when serious attention is given to repair, restitution and the restoration of justice.  Peace is certainly not a ‘Pax Romana’, a ‘peace’ imposed by abusers and designed only to silence the voices of victims.

So then. This is St John’s ‘Pentecost’. A spirit poured out not 50 days after Easter, in fulfillment of a great many dreams and grand story-arcs, but on the evening of Easter itself: in the middle of dreams shattered and rumours of hope which, as yet, make no sense at all.  It is a Pentecost not for the strong, but for the weak. It is a Pentecost not for the centres of worldly power but for the exploited, wounded, periphery. St John’s Pentecost is for everyone who knows that they are broken and alone and in need of reconnection and healing. It is a Pentecost for everyone who feels that their community has become dysfunctional and there seems little chance that things will ever turn around. It is a Pentecost for the victims of injustice and abuse who are right here in our midst and all around. It is a Pentecost for the ravaged and crucified earth, which mob call ‘country’, our Christ. 

If I might be permitted to make the implicit in what I’ve said quite explicit—recasting all I have said just now in an entirely Aboriginal frame—imagine for a moment that country has a voice, and that voice is amongst us, here in this cathedral, here on this sacred meeting place of the Kulin nations. The voice says something like this to us:

Peace be with you.
See the wounds of colonisation?
Still, peace be with you.
As the dreaming has sent me, so I send you.
Receive the spirit of country.
Receive power to forgive the repentant.
Receive power to resist the abusers.

These are the gifts of St John's pentecost. All that remains is that we receive and enact them. 

I wish you all a blessed and truly transformative Pentecost.

Garry Worete Deverell

St Paul’s Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne,
Pentecost 2023

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